The primary practice of Pureland Buddhism is called nembutsu which literally means "mindfulness of Buddha". Sometimes such mindfulness is interpreted as meaning "keeping in mind" and sometimes as "saying the Name of Buddha".
Many people who write about the development of Pureland Buddhism in Japan and its history focus upon how verbal numbest developed out of meditative nembutsu. By the latter we mean a purely mental activity of saying the words inwardly or visualising the image of Amitabha or any of the other images listed in the Contemplation Sutra. The general drift of such writings is that the verbal nembutsu came to be considered more practical for ordinary people in the “Dharma-ending Age”.
It is generally said that it was Shan Tao in particular who interpreted references to “mindfulness of Amitabha” in the sutras as referring to verbal utterance of the Name. Earlier practitioners, such as Lu Shan Hui Yuan, who founded the first White Lotus Society in China for Pureland practice in 400 CE, are said to have done a meditative nembutsu only, based on the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra.
My own view is that this makes too sharp a division. I am sure that from the very earliest times Buddhists have praised and invoked the Buddhas in a wide variety of ways and that the practice of circumambulating stupas while reciting the Buddha’s Name must date at least from immediately after the demise of Shakyamuni. There are indications that the worship of Buddha relics was established even during the lifetime of the sage. A person does not have to be dead for relics to exist, as we know from the practice of lovers keeping a lock of hair of their beloved in a locket. So I think that calling and contemplating have always existed side by side and rather than thinking of one replacing the other we should regard them as complementary.
In China, it was common - normal even - to practise Ch’an (Zen) and Jing Tu (Pureland) concurrently. This is called “dual practice” and to this day is a fairly standard way of doing Buddhism in China. Buddhism is taken to consist of a number of schools that are not mutually exclusive, but rather are complementary. There are several philosophical schools that expound the Dharma from the viewpoint of particular sutras - Lotus, Avatamsaka, etc - a Vinaya school that sets out monastic discipline and Buddhist ethics, and the two practice schools, Ch’an and Jing Tu. These are all seen as, as it were, segments of the same cake. When Buddhism went to Japan, the founders were often people who had only received one of these segments and the particular circumstances of Japanese culture at the time resulted in Buddhism developing differently there, such that, in Japan, Buddhism is divided into separate denominations and while it possible for the individual practitioner to practise more than one variety concurrently, this is not general.
A result of these circumstances is that Zen and Pureland are more distinct in Japan than in China. In China there was a tendency for nembutsu (the main practice of Pureland) to be considered as a form of meditation (the main practice of Zen) and for meditation to be seen as a contemplation of Buddha Nature identified with Amitabha and, therefore, as not unrelated to nembutsu.
Consequently, there was a tendency in China to look at nembutsu practice in terms of its technique, whereas in Japan there is more of an assertion that nembutsu has nothing to do with technique. We do not need to get hung up on these differences nor take sides, but it is interesting to reflect upon what Buddhists in different circumstances have done to try to make their practice more profound or effective.
Thus, for instance, some Chinese masters recommend that when saying the nembutsu out loud it is good to do one or more of the following:
- visualise Amitabha &/or the Pureland.
- make the effort to hear the sound of your own voice so that you say and hear the nembutsu simultaneously.
- say the nembutsu continuously so that there is no time gap between the end of one and the start of the next into which stray distracting thoughts may enter.
- coordinate the words with the breathing or with the steps in walking or with the bodily movements of making prostrations.
These and other similar technical refinements can make the practice more concentrated and can fulfil the principle of practising nien fo with body, speech and mind.”
The Chinese were interested in techniques of this kind because they saw the objective of the exercise as being to arrive at “the nembutsu samadhi” - a state of rapturous absorption in the grace of Amitabha. In this there is clearly a “self-power” element.
The Japanese, on the other hand, took the logic of “other-power” further. The idea of a nembutsu samadhi was not eschewed, but it was seen as something granted rather than something achieved. Furthermore, while the arrival of such a samadhi was seen as a confirmation of Amida’s grace, it was not regarded as necessary. A person can enter the Pure Land without ever having experienced the samadhi. However, when Honen was asked why he chose Tao Cho, Tan Luan and Shan Tao as exemplars rather than choosing other Pureland masters of old, he said that it was because they had experienced the samadhi whereas others had not. He himself experienced the samadhi in a particularly major way near to the end of his life.
In our Summary of Faith and Practice we say that our nembutsu is not done as a form of meditation. In our approach, rather, meditation is done as a form of nembutsu. When the selection of nembutsu as primary practice has been made, other forms of practice naturally become forms of nembutsu. Nembutsu thus becomes a form of “unremitting mindfulness” as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, not because one remains consciously attentive to nembutsu every wakeful hour but because it is so integrated into one that it has become second nature. This means that Amitabh is in our life whether we are thinking about him or not. This is what is called “anshin” - peaceful mind or settled faith. It is a state of complete assurance.
This is a state of “joy and ease” rather than one of intense effort. It colours all the sentiments of one’s life and, in particular, takes away the fear of death. By doing so it affects our emotional life in a variety of beneficial ways. We then naturally express what arises and such expression is practice. In this condition, practice is not a means of arriving at any particular state, it is a natural and easy expression of faith and gratitude already established. Whether that expression takes a verbal, kinetic or contemplative form makes no difference. There are a myriad ways to express devotion.